Gene Anne Joseph, the first librarian of First Nations heritage in BC, will receive Doctor of Laws at VIU’s June 5 convocation ceremony
NANAIMO, BC: Since childhood, Gene Anne Joseph was always happiest with a book in hand.
“My parents and family would joke that I wouldn’t move in an earthquake if I was reading,” Joseph says.
Joseph’s father had an elementary-level education in federal Indian day school and her mother attended residential school until age 16. Her parents raised 12 children.
Due to their support and encouragement, the majority of their children have a post-secondary level education.
“Throughout my life my parents were my primary inspiration as they taught all of my sisters and brothers that we were expected to work hard, be honest, and support and encourage others,” says Joseph.
In 1972, she began her post-secondary academic career as one of the few First Nations students at Langara College.
Her first summer job was copying a catalogue of a small collection for the UBC Indian Education Resource Centre. Every summer afterwards, Joseph found herself obtaining positions at libraries.
When she finished her bachelor’s degree at the University of British Columbia (UBC), a position with the BC Union Chief Resource Centre opened up, and Joseph knew this was the job for her – except they rejected her application. Unwilling to accept no for an answer, Joseph boldly wrote a letter to the President, Chief George Manuel, to explain while she didn’t have the exact qualifications they were looking for, the experience and passion she possessed made her the perfect candidate. He agreed and hired her. Joseph worked there for three years before going back to UBC to obtain her Master’s of Library Science.
During her graduate studies, Joseph collected and analyzed subject headings used by First Nations libraries in Canada to catalogue and organize information resources. This work continued in her role at the UBC Native Indian Teacher Education Program (NITEP) Resource Centre.
“I always felt I was working for First Nations people. When I saw the language used to describe First Nations, I found it ethnocentric and demeaning to us. It didn’t describe us how we describe ourselves,” she says.
Although Joseph considers herself a rather shy person, “when something is important enough, I force myself to step up.”
With no precedent to follow, Joseph carved the way by creating a new classification system that uses proper terminology used by First Nations communities. In 2005, UBC committed to protect the unique system designed by Joseph, which is now known as the First Nations House of Learning Subject Headings (FNHL-SH) and classification.
“To Indigenous librarianship, Gene Joseph is an unsung hero whose professional leadership laid a foundation for the future,” says Patricia Geddes, Student Engagement and Community Outreach Librarian at VIU. “Gene’s innovative approach to her work continues to inspire the next generation of Indigenous information professionals working towards decolonizing library services and building recognition for Indigenous knowledge systems.”
Joseph was the founding librarian of the Xwi7xwa Library at UBC, the only post-secondary Aboriginal library in Canada.
“She created an atmosphere that has continued to this day, an atmosphere that welcomed Aboriginal students and created a home-like environment for them as they adjusted to academic life in a huge institution,” says Tim Atkinson, VIU’s now-retired University Librarian.
In 1969, the federal government proposed to end the Indian Act, and First Nations communities in BC were coming together to legally stand up for Aboriginal Rights and Land Title.
“It was an exciting time politically for First Nations people,” Joseph says. “As a young woman, I decided my long-term goal was to work on Aboriginal Land Title. I wanted to do something to help First Nations – to help my people.”
In 1984, she was recruited to organize materials for the Delgamuukw v. British Columbia Supreme Court case, a landmark ruling that set a legal precedent for the court’s recognition of Aboriginal Title in Canada.
Although legally defined as Delgamuukw v. BC, Joseph intentionally refers to the trial as Delgamuukw Gisday’wa v. BC as both Gitxsan and Wet’suwet’en Nations were represented on the case – a fact too often overlooked.
“For me, it’s important terminology as I have dedicated my whole life to trying to correct terminology describing First Nations issues and subjects,” she says.
The case holds significant personal meaning to Joseph as she was born in Wet’suwet’en territory in the village of Hagwilget/Tse-kya, and has close connections to both Wet’suwet’en and Gitxsan peoples.
“Through her efforts and collaboration with the chiefs and lawyers, Gene brought the Delgamuukw case to life and helped make the rights of the Gitxsan and Wet’suwet’en people real in court,” says Stuart Rush, consultant at White Raven Law. “She has left a powerful legacy in what she accomplished for her people and for the land.”
Joseph went on to assist as Senior Advisor and Director of Research and Litigation Support at White Raven Law for the Haida Nation Aboriginal Title court case.
In 1991, Joseph helped establish the BC Library Association First Nations Interest Group, a professional network that holds a scholarship endowment created in her name to support Aboriginal graduate students pursuing library sciences. The funding for the scholarship originally came from the successful volunteer-run workshops for First Nations community information workers.
At the time of the first award, Joseph was one of the few First Nations librarians in Canada. Now 16 Aboriginal Gene Joseph Scholars are working as information professionals.
“I am proud the scholarship has affected so many people obtaining their master’s degree. I am proud I am no longer the only First Nations librarian in BC. It was difficult to be the only person in my field; no assistance or colleagues to understand what you are going through,” Joseph says.
Throughout her career and advocacy work, Joseph has demonstrated that education, once used as a tool for repression, can be used to empower future generations. Much of her work has revolved around ensuring First Nations history and stories are documented and acknowledged properly.
“People have such terrible misunderstandings about First Nations legal rights and place in Canadian history. If non-First Nations had knowledge of our history and culture, they would have a better perception of us.”
Joseph has been instrumental at changing that perception through her unwavering dedication and commitment to build bridges between individuals, institutions and communities for the benefit of First Nations and all Canadians.